Friday, March 30, 2007

Scene Gems: Ripley and Co. Run Away from Blips in 'Aliens'

James Cameron's Aliens (1986) is a great sci-fi action flick that cranks up the tension throughout and never relents. It's a sequel that matches or betters the original (although I think its an apple-and-oranges comparison), is very well-made, and delivers on every one of it's promises.

It's a cinematic fact that what you can't see is always more scary than what you can, and Aliens has a perfect device to illustrate this point. The "Motion Tracker" is a gizmo that shows movement as radar-type images. In this sequence, you don't see the monsters coming (or cheesy POV shots), only Tracker imagery and the panicked look on the actors faces as impending doom approaches. Sound design also plays a part as the Trackers emit a higher and higher pitched alarm (almost a scream) as death gets too close for comfort.

This was Cameron's first film after his success with The Terminator (1984), and he really hits this one out of the park. Not only does the guy know camerawork, atmosphere (lots of red light insinuates fear, hell, etc.), and technology, he writes great characters as well. Notice that the women are just as strong as the men, and it's Ripley that discovers what the baddies are up to, not the well-trained Colonial Marines.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Scary Theatrics

I dislocated my left pinkie finger last night playing basketball, so my post today is going to be brief. It was one of those heinous-looking injuries where your finger goes instantly numb and when you look down, it's pointed in an unnatural direction. I wasn't in any pain, but no one would pop it back in for me, so I did it myself and taped it to my ring finger. After playing for another hour, I went to the emergency room for x-rays and a splint. Nothing is broken, but now my dominant hand is bound up rendering me a Sleestak, according to my wife.

Something else I found scary today was Lance Weiler's current post at The Workbook Project. He speaks of how a DIY theatrical run for indie films is a "dangerous proposition." He had a 17 city tour for his latest film, Head Trauma, and while he did make money (mostly from other sources), only drew in an average 25 to 30 people per screening.

That is an especially humbling number when you consider how amazing Lance is at generating grassroots interest. Even with all of his savvy, getting people out to a theater to watch your movie is an uphill battle. This is something I wanted to try, but I think Lance has convinced me otherwise. Be sure to check out his very informative post for the entire scoop.

For me, I think I'll stick to my current idea of creating a good movie for little money, releasing it free on the web, and selling DVDs to those who like it. It has it's own dangers, but I can wrap my head around it, and foresee it as a yearly undertaking to replace my day job. The makers of The Corporation are already using this exact method.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Technique: Shooting Backwards for Forwards

Any easy effect that just about anyone can do is to take footage and reverse it in post. This can be used in one of two ways: to make something look like it's moving backwards (duh), or to take something shot backwards and make it look like it was supposed to be forwards.

As a simple effects shot, this can yield some cool results. In my short film, Middle of Nowhere, I wanted a car's digital clock to look like it was ticking backwards. I simply shot the clock normally, then reversed the footage later. What I really liked was the colon between the numbers was blinking as if it was running forward, then GASP! it went back in time!

This can also be a way to safely pull off shots that are inherently dangerous. Remember in Predator (1987), when the alien pins Arnold's neck to the log with the wrist-mounted knives? Close inspection will reveal that the knives started in the log, and were then pulled out, insuring Schwarzenegger wouldn't be injured.

Sometimes this effect is played out as a gimmick for the entire piece as in the above clip from Top Secret! (1984) or the below music video from the band Mute Math. What's impressive about these is the obvious amount of rehearsal that must have went into them. The lead singer even practiced how to say the lyrics backward while shooting, which end up matching pretty well when reversed.

Another mind bending turn is when normal events are combined with a backwards-moving actor, which ends up looking like he's moving normally and the rest of the world is moving in the opposite direction. This was the effect in Leon Prochnik's short film The Existentialist (1963), which goes on too long, but creates a bizarre world in seemingly normal surroundings.

Just remember, when you attempt things like this that you'll have to create an entirely custom soundtrack. Since you'll be reversing everything, your audio will be essentially useless (unless your actors are supposed to be speaking Swedish). Of course, if you're making a music video, this is a moot point.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Tool Time: Stuff for Your Shoot

Two-Way Radio Ga Ga
Sometimes you're going to have to cue someone from afar, and yelling just doesn't cut it. A bullhorn may work, but if you're anywhere remotely public, your going to call a lot of attention to yourself, and the fact that you don't have a shooting permit. FRS (Family Radio Service) two-way radios are readily available in pairs, with the older two mile versions going for under ten bucks. They have 14 channels to choose from with GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) models having even more. Just be aware that you need to get an FCC license to use GMRS channels, so pony up or just don't use them.

DVD Player, Zero. External Monitor, One.
I shoot most of my stuff with an older Canon Optura Pi, which has a nice picture (for a one-chip camera) and a nifty progressive scan mode. It can also shoot in 16:9 widescreen, but only has a 4:3 monitor for reference. As a result the picture gets squished, making composition a guessing game. Getting your hands on a portable DVD player with a video input helps a great deal. It not only gives you accurate picture framing, but is always bigger as well (nice to keep cast and crew from looking over the DP's shoulder). I traded a new DVD for mine, which will no longer play discs, but works just dandy as an external monitor. This will keep the cost down, and prevent them from ending up in your local landfill.

Power, Anyone?
You never know where you're going to end up shooting, or where your power source will come from. You may be in an old house with unreliable power outlets, and will need an easy way to test them. Instead of running to every plug with some unwieldy piece of gear, why not this little gizmo that will not only tell you if the outlet is hot, but also six other possible circuit conditions. At only $4 it's a steal, and could save you valuable time and headaches. Cheaper versions that check only for power can be had at any hardware store, but I think a couple extra bucks is worth the added features.

Headlamp Redux
Last week I told you about the benefits of a cheap headlamp found online. Well, the promotional code for that light didn't work, leaving all of you (and me) in the dark. I found another cheap alternative (just over $5, shipping included) from dealextreme that should fit the bill. It doesn't look as elegant as the previous version (it appears bulkier), but will still get the job done and keep your hands free while you fumble around with your script while everyone pesters you about what's happening next.

Making Money with Your Movie: Give it Away and Turn a Profit?

Every artist I know wants to make money from their work. This would free them from their "normal" job, and allow them countless hours to focus and expend energy on the form of expression that gives them satisfaction and release. Every "struggling artist" wants the solution that will grant them this liberty. Can you imagine what you would accomplish if you spend your time at work on the career you really want?

This is a puzzle for every filmmaker. You have creative talent and technical skill. What you seem to lack is an avenue to exploit these abilities for your benefit. Paying the bills and putting food on the table is paramount, and if you could only do this doing something you love, you can begin to set foot on that road to becoming whole. Or you'd sit in front of the TV and watch every episode of "Charmed" ever broadcast.

Either way, the enigma is turning your work into dollars. If you paint or draw really well (and have some connections), you could have a gallery showing. If you create a feature film, you could play festivals or take your film on the road. Others have done this, and made a little cash, but not enough to live on.

I don't have the "magic bullet" for this problem myself (or I'd be doing it), but after listening to other creative artists, I think I have an idea that might work, or has the capacity for working. It involves a simple idea, the internet (of course) and a lot of marketing (of course).

Recently, I listened to one of The Workbook Project's "This Conference is being Recorded" podcasts. It was an interview with sci-fi author Cory Doctorow, who sells his books online, but also distributes free electronic copies in various forms. Anyone is free to download these at their leisure, and read away. If you like what you read, you can get a real copy. If you don't, no problem.

He doesn't feel this hurts sales at all, but encourages it. He compares it to someone browsing bookstore shelves. They pick up a book, flip through or read it, then put it back on the shelf. It sounds a lot like the old Napster debate: give songs away, and those who like it, will buy it.

More support for this theory comes from a Digimart Conference held last year. There, filmmaker Tiffany Shlain speaks of having her short film, The Tribe, on the Sundance website for anyone to watch. This spiked sales of her DVD. When she went to another festival and was asked to take down the film, sales plummeted.

So would this work for a feature film? Could you place your 80-minute wonder on Google Video (preceded by an ad for the DVD), and promote sales? The selling points are better quality of audio and video, and bonus features. If you could drive enough people to watch it, and sold it for a reasonable amount (I'm thinking $13, shipping included), it could work. Cory points out that his electronic distribution costs are zero, and the more people download (and potentially spread it around), the more word gets out.

To equal a modest salary ($30,000) you're going to have to sell 3,000 copies (this assumes you make about $10 per copy). That isn't a very high number, and with effort and marketing it could be a reality. Just make sure you make a good film worth buying, and you could do the unthinkable. That's my plan, anyway.

Wild Hogs

Born to Be Mild

I have to admit, when I saw the trailer for the mid-life crisis comedy Wild Hogs, I was pretty underwhelmed. the trailer was laughless, and looked like an excuse for good buddies to get together to have a good time and make a movie (in that order). When a co-worker told me it wasn’t as bad as she thought it was going to be, I was a little more enthused. Even going in with no expectations, Wild Hogs is a boar, er bore.

Lifelong friends and losers Doug (Tim Allen), Woody (John Travolta), Bobby (Martin Lawrence) and Dudley (William H. Macy) have one thing in common--they love to ride their motorcycles. Sporting leather jackets and matching ‘Wild Hogs’ logos, they ride together once a week. When Woody feels the pressure of bankruptcy and middle age, he convinces his fellow Hogs that they need to separate themselves from their mundane lives and embark on a road trip from their native Cincinnati to the Pacific Ocean. When they encounter a real biker gang and their bully-of-a-leader Jack (Ray Liotta), will the Hogs live up to their namesake or die trying?

Wild Hogs is about as derivative as you can get, without a single original thought in its collective head. It’s City Slickers meets Every Which Way But Loose, meets The Seven Samurai (or its remake The Magnificent Seven, or its remake The Three Amigos). It also has its roots in television sitcoms, from the lame jokes and slapstick humor, to obvious studio sets that are supposed be outdoor locations.

The main showcase here is the talent, all of which embarrass themselves. Tim Allen (The Santa Clause 3) continues his string of movies where he plays himself reading an unfunny script (his last good movie was Galaxy Quest--eight years ago). John Travolta (Be Cool) goes waaaaay over the top, chewing the scenery like he hasn’t eaten for a month. Martin Lawrence (Big Momma’s House 2) does his standard obnoxious shtick, and the best actor here, William H. Macy (Bobby) gets to play real dumb, which seems beneath him.

The supporting cast is a pretty impressive group, even if they are trapped in this black hole of a movie. There’s the aforementioned Liotta (Smokin’ Aces) who is believably sinister. Marisa Tomei (Alfie) is effectively sultry as Macy’s love interest, Maggie, and they even generate some real chemistry. Jill Hennessy (TV’s Crossing Jordan) appears for awhile as Allen’s wife (although her demeanor had me convinced she was having an affair), and I always love seeing Stephen Tobolowsky (Failure to Launch) in anything. There is even a nice cameo at the end of the movie that was very nostalgic and brought a little smile to my face.

Wild Hogs feels like a bad high school play. The script is dumb (and predictable), the laughs are few, and while it appears everyone is having a good time, maybe someone should have requested a new screenplay instead of adding another old buddy to the cast. Wild Hogs couldn’t get me to recommend this movie to anyone. Or Wild Dogs. Or...Frogs.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Scene Gems: Gene Hackman Doesn't Take Any Guff in 'Hoosiers'

David Anspaugh's Hoosiers (1986) is a very good sports film. I won't say it's the best, which I think belongs to the first Rocky (1976), which practically invented (along with The Bad News Bears in the same year) the "sports movie" formula.

In case you've been living under a rock, the story follows coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), a former college basketball coach who has a troubled past. He gets another chance at teaching the sport he loves to high school kids in the 50's, after a friend gives him the job. Trouble brews with the townsfolk don't understand his unconventional methods.

Hackman is one of our best actors, and I love this scene which covers his first day of coaching. It's a great example of character definition, as we see Hackman handle the obnoxious interim coach (played by the wonderfully slimy character actor Chelcie Ross), and a couple of disobedient players. We see that Dale is firm, but fair. We also see that Jimmy Chitwood (the best player in the state) witnesses Dale's determination, which will come back to affect the story later on.

Hooisers was also notable in that it cast real basketball players who could act, instead of the reverse. This leads to some very realistic (and rousing) game sequences right to the championship at the end. Anspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo would re-team for Rudy, another effective and inspirational sports film released seven years later.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

My Top Ten Movie List of Top Ten Movie Lists

This may get my "lazy post of the week award", but I've noticed that several creative top ten lists have popped up over the years, and they can be quite entertaining. They cover all sorts of categories, and I have compiled a list of these (complete with links) that should keep you busy for a few minutes or so.

The good ones have pictures of each film, while the best contain actual video clips. My criteria was that each list had to have commentary, and could not be just "The top ten (insert movie type) films of all time." The envelope please...

10. Movie Weapons of All Time
9. Movie Spaceships
8. Movie Retards
7. Movie Fights
6. Movie Opening Scenes
5. Violent Death Scenes
4. Greatest Film Speeches and Monologues
3. Worst Portrayals of Technology in Film
2. Most Horrific Plane Crashes
1. Movie Cars 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Sound of Music: Scoring your Film with a Flesh and Blood Composer

When I went into pre-production for my last short film, Middle of Nowhere, I decided that I had to have an original score. Sound is at least half of the movie watching experience, and the score is at least half that. Think of your favorite movies. What are their themes? These things go hand in hand, and if you want to be a real filmmaker, you have to have a real soundtrack.

I appreciate the availability of computer programs such as Acid Music, Cinescore, SonicFire Pro, and Soundtrack Pro that make music without a knowledge of composing. These programs are ideal when you are in a pinch, or when you need a short piece of music for specific applications (like a looping DVD menu). For my movie, however, I wanted a real person behind the wheel.

Filmmaking is a collaborative art form. You can’t do it all by yourself, so you surround yourself with gifted people who are great at specific things. Your movie will only be as good as your weakest link, so it is wise to find specialists who know (or want to learn) various elements of production that will make you look really good. The best people will also have lots of ideas to throw your way, many of which you will never think of. It is still your job to sort through all this input to find the stuff that works, but more creative data is always better than less.

So it goes with composing. I had no idea who was going to do my score until one of my actors told me about cousin Seth Neuffer who had a Masters Degree in Film Composition. After poring over his impressive website, I emailed a copy of my script (which he liked), and then gave him a call. We had a long conversation about what mood I wanted to convey, and he had some great questions for me. What published soundtrack most resembled what I wanted? What style of music was I interested in? How soon could I get him a video file to work on? It was very exciting to bounce my ideas off him, and I couldn’t wait to see the first results.

After I had achieved picture lock, I encoded a file and sent it away. His email couldn’t handle the large file, so we went through Yousendit, a free service that allows the exchange of large files. Once Seth had the file, I waited with baited breath for the music that I hoped would invigorate the piece that I was quickly tiring of.

When the first sample came back, it was very, very exciting. Suspense was created and mood was enhanced a hundred fold. I anxiously emailed Seth back with copious notes, and waited for the next update. This process continued for about a month, as Seth and I worked together (not always agreeing), until we had hammered out a score that worked very well for me. I have to give a ton of credit to this guy, because when I felt something didn’t work, he created something new that worked better. It was a happy, reward-filled collaboration, and I look forward to working with Seth again.

If a composer doesn’t fall into your lap as one did mine, do a little looking. Talk to your people and see if they have connections. Post an ad on Craigslist. Contact local bands. These music maestros are out there, and they want to help you, as well has expand their resume. Give them a good movie and they will make it better, and make you look brilliant.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Feels Familiar

It’s time once again to return to that place between light and shadow, between science and superstition, between non-linear plots and time travel to save a loved one. Yep, it’s Twilight Zone turf, this time with plucky Sandra Bullock as a wife and mother who seems to be time-tripping back and forth around the day that her husband dies in Premonition. I like Sandra Bullock, and I like funky timelines. What I don’t like are screenplays that break their own rules and filmmakers who condescend to their audience.

Housewife Linda Hanson (Bullock), is jarred from her seemingly happy life by terrible news: her husband (Julian McMahon) has just been killed in a car accident. After trying to cope (and telling her two young daughters) she falls asleep only to awaken to her now-alive husband, several days before he is to crash. Upon waking again, she is back to the future, where he is dead and about to be buried, which she refuses to accept. What is going on here, and how can Linda save her husband before she goes mad?

If this plot sounds confusing, it really isn’t. What is setup in the first act is that she wakes up forward in time, then back, then forward plus one day, then back plus one day, etc. What is confusing is why screenwriter Bill Kelly (Blast from the Past) decides to abandon this formula just when things are getting interesting. Something not fun happens to Linda and I wanted to see how she gets out of it. Instead, we get a cheat where she goes back when she should be going forward. With the pattern broken, I cared a lot less about what would happen.

Another glaring problem is the way that director Mennan Yapo thinks everyone watching this movie is stupid. We get lots of “help” in the form of pointless flashbacks and repeated dialogue ethereally whispered in the soundtrack. I also hate the way he over-emphasizes emotional moments by shaking his camera like someone who drank way to much coffee. Bullock’s facial expression in reaction to her husband's death is perfect, but Yapo ruins the moment by jittering the lens ad nasueum.

While I can’t really give this movie a favorable review, it’s not all bad. Bullock (The Lake House) is always likeable and you have instant sympathy for her character. There is also some genuine suspense in the film, like the moment when Bullock approaches her daughter facing away from the camera on a swingset (she reaches for her shoulder...). Finally, the movie has a real pro-religion and pro-family message that while heavy-handed at times, is a breath of fresh air compared to what usually comes out of Hollywood.

Premonition could have and should have been a satisfying tale of disorientation, mystery and mania. Instead, it cheats and jerks you around and while it isn’t a complete train wreck, you keep wishing that cow wasn’t on the track to mess things up.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Tool Time: More Goodies for your Gearbag

Look Toward the Light
Recently, I had a post about cheap and futuristic looking LED flashlights, but this week I go one better. This model found on meritline, is a 5-LED headlamp, which can come in very handy on those night shoots, especially when you have to consult your script in the dark. No more fumbling around, just activate your forehead light! You may look a bit dorky, but it's all in the name of art. This posting on Toolmonger will show you the code which nabs you this light for a mere $5. Also good for outfitting actors for your ripoff, er homage, to The Descent.

Camera Head
If you're into documenting extreme sports (for that ultimate POV shot), this instructable may be just what your looking for. Sam Noyoun details how to mount a small video camera on a standard safety helmet. Once there, it will see whatever you see, courtesy the lo-tech crosshair (which only an extreme sports dude could love). A video clip shows you the kind of stuff possible, such as Sam rolling his kayak from a first person perspective.

Up, Up and Away
If you're ambitious and want to impress, how about an aerial shot? Can't afford a helicopter, ultralight, or hot-air balloon? Russell A. Jones III has a different approach: kite photography. His rig doesn't exactly look cheap (and navigating may take some practice), but it is original, and could really add that impressive establishing shot you've been wanting. My advice would be to build the rig in conjunction with someone who is handy with kites (a kiteographer?), and you may save yourself some pain on your way to cool shotness.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Filmmaker Lance Weiler is Everywhere

I don't think Lance Weiler sleeps. And has clones of himself. And three arms. How else can you explain all the stuff he is doing?

On his excellent blog, the Workbook Project, he continues his series of interviews under "This Conference is Being Recorded." Recently, he interviewed Joe Swanberg, who makes low-budget movies that are largely unscripted and created on the fly. He is a true guerrilla, using friends and their property (he cites Robert Altman as an inspiration) to work out his films as he goes. He has played several festivals and even has made some DVD deals. It may not be my cup of tea, but Joe is making movies hand-over-fist, and there is a lot to learn from what he has to say here.

Lance also just returned from the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival in Austin, Texas. There, he spoke on several panels about indie distribution and blogging about movies (hey, where was my invite?). On CinemaTech, I found some video (provided by of Lance and several others sharing some of their filmmaking experiences. It's fairly lightweight, but still interesting, and I always like listening to passionate people who get a chance to conversate.

If you're curious about what's new with Lance's last movie, Head Trauma, check out the blog here. It appears the film will be getting some more press and Lance speaks mentions where he will be pitching two more of his scripts, both of which remain in the horror genre.

Keep it up, Lance. You're an inspiration to all us little guys with big dreams.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Tool Time: Filmmaking Gear You Might Need

Several times a week I work on a local TV show produced by my station. My favorite job is to run hand-held camera, which helps to break up the monotony of my day-to-day stuff which is quite repetitive. I know that many low-budget filmmakers will shoot entire movies this way to get a more "documentary" feel (or maybe they can't afford a tripod). There are lots of times when you'll have to go to your knees to get a shot, and you could really use something like Irwin's I-Gel Stabilizers that I found on Toolmonger. They will save your knees from a lot of damage, allow you to drop quickly, and only set you back about $25. Not bad if you do a lot of this stuff.

One tool I use on every shoot is a winding extension cord. These babies are great for giving you four plugs at the end of a 25' cord. They also make for quick striking, as the thing winds up to perfection in about 15 seconds. No more cord coiling! They are also compact, and can fit almost anywhere for nice portability. Found at almost any hardware store (or here, if you can't), these will cost you around $20, and are well worth it.

Another gadget I've used quite often, is a mini-DV tape rewinder. This seems like a no-brainer to save wear on your camera or deck, but I never even thought of it until I came across a clearance sale at Rat Shack that featured this Maxell model for $15. When I was shooting a TV show with three cameras and 6 tapes per show, I know this thing saved my tape heads from undo strain. They are harder to find locally, but eBay can help if no one else can.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Role-Playing Sourcebooks: Instant Research for Screenwriters

For me, writing is always a daunting task. I am a huge believer that the basis for any film is the screenplay, and if you muck that up, your chances of success on any level are doomed. As the old church song goes “the wise man built his house upon a rock”. So it is with filmmaking. The wise movie maker builds upon a solid foundation. The fool builds upon sand. Any questions?

So what do you do if you want to write about a given subject, but don’t have countless hours to research it? The internet is always a great place with oodles of info, but sifting through it all may not be the best way to spend your life. There is an alternative that holds great potential, but may be unknown to writers who are looking to expand their knowledge in a given area.

It may sound nerdy, but “sourcebooks” for role-playing games are like genre encyclopedias just brimming with history, culture and items that could greatly aid any screenwriter. They show costumes from all eras (real or imagined) as well as props and vehicles. Story ideas can also be found ad naseum, as the purpose of these books is to generate worlds for player-characters to interact in. This is exactly what you are doing: creating worlds in which your characters live and experience.

The best of these books are those that deal in “universal” role-playing (like GURPS). The less specific the rules are, the more the book will concentrate on the content of the game and not the nitty-gritty of play. Even if games are rule intensive, add-on books are often less concerned with rules (since they are covered in the main book), and cost less.

The artwork contained in these manuals can be quite good, and an inspiration in themselves. Look at the picture here for a defunct game called Bloodshadows. It shows a detective from a noir era, with a sexy dame on his arm. You may not be able to tell here, but she is a vampire. This world is set on another planet, but this image conjures up all kinds of ideas about an alternate earth where noir and sci-fi/horror collide. I love crossing genres, and stuff like this is priceless in stimulating the imagination.

Role Playing Games (RPGs) are a huge business and there have been literally hundreds of games that have come and gone. Perusing used book stores and thrift shops can give you excellent material for little money. If you poke around the web (on sites like you can find the titles you may like and almost always find them on eBay, again for very little cash. Libraries can be another good source, and that avenue won’t cost you a dime!

Many people often just write off RPGs as dork fodder, but even if you have no desire to ever play one of these games, they are a bountiful resource just waiting to be tapped. You may be amazed that your next great movie idea comes from a place you thought you’d never visit, but were glad you did.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Tom Cruise Channels John Wayne in 'Minority Report'

Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002) is a great film, a sci-fi action tale with well-drawn characters, exciting plot, and multi-layered story. Tom Cruise plays John Anderton, a near future cop who runs the government's Precrime Department, an experimental program which apprehends criminals before they commit any offense. After being fingered as a soon-to-be killer, Anderton runs.

In this scene (one of several fine set pieces), Cruise nabs a stun-gun from a federal stooge stalking him in an auto manufacturing plant. Notice how Spielberg shows us how lame the no-name punching bag reloads versus Cruise when he grabs the thing (revealing how familiar his character is with current weaponry). It's very cool, and reminded me of the classic way the Duke used to re-cock his classic Winchester in a classic western or two.

Schwarzenegger used a similar technique in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), but Cruise uses finesse and speed to show how fast he can turn the situation to his advantage by pulling an ace out of his sleeve. I realize it's a small bit in a huge film, but nifty moments like these only add to the tapestry created by everyone in this excellent effort.

Monday, March 12, 2007

MPAA to Overhaul Ratings System: NC-17 Out

Over the weekend Variety posted an article about the MPAA reworking the current ratings system to more accurately reflect film content. It seems that the ‘R’ rating is too broad, and the NC-17 worthless. No mainstream theater will book an NC-17 rated movie, and Blockbuster won’t carry them. Films with a few swear words and brief nudity get the same ‘R’ rating as those with lots of the same, on top of explicit violence. A fix would seem to be in order.

I remember when the last ratings adjustment was about to take place, and Siskel & Ebert were lobbying almost weekly for an ‘A’ (for ‘Adult’) rating that would allow for more mature-themed films. This would replace the ‘X’ rating, which wasn’t copyrighted by the MPAA and was quickly adopted by the porn industry as their moniker in various forms.

When the change did happen, we ended up with two new ratings: the PG-13 and the NC-17 (which stood for ‘No Children under the age of 17 admitted’). The PG-13 soon became the most common rating every studio wanted. It was the one which would allow for the largest slice of filmgoers as well as a little edgy content. Some would argue this rating allows too much edgy stuff, and pushes the envelope too far. Others say it forces filmmakers to water down movies for mass consumption.

Kirby Dick’s This Film is Not Yet Rated is an expose on the whole MPAA and their methods (or lack thereof), and has garnered a lot of attention since its release last year. I haven’t seen it, but admit it’s a wonderful idea for a doc. Check out the trailer and you get the idea of where the movie is going as well as where rating the industry has gone.

I realize it’s much easier to sit back and criticize than it is to offer solutions. So, in an effort to help, I suggest we do away with all of the ratings in their various forms and replace them with one: the ‘F’ rating.

My system is based on the Fujita Scale (or F-Scale), which rates tornadoes using the damage they inflict as a measuring stick. A Category F0, for example, is light damage, while a Category F5 is incredible damage. Ratings for the movies would be similar, but would center on how many times an “F-bomb” is dropped during the course of a film. The exact number of “F-bombs” would be revealed in the rating, letting patrons know exactly what they were in for. It is my theory that the use of foul language would directly reflect the other content featured in the film such as violence, sex, and violent sex.

As a result, all movies would receive an ‘F’ rating. The breakdown would go something like this:

F0: No uses of said swear word, suitable for all ages. Disney films would fall into this category.
F1: One use of said swear word, not suitable for everybody, but most could handle it.
F2: Two uses of this word should alert parents they might want to be careful about letting their youngsters view such material.
F3-F5: Watch out! Things are getting a bit gritty and you may want to steer clear.
F6-F10: Definitely edgy, but not over the top.
F11 and above: Rough stuff, and only for those not offendable by such language and all things associated with it (anything by Quentin Tarantino, Oliver Stone, David Fincher).

So a film like Minority Report would be receive an ‘F1’ rating, while Pulp Fiction gets rated ‘F265’.

Of course, I’m totally kidding. My system would place a language-heavy drama (Good Will Hunting) in the same category as a gory horror flick (Hostel). That would be utterly ridiculous and would never work in today’s marketplace. Right?

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Something for a Lazy Weekend: Sixty Second Theater

Movie trailers are an interesting breed. No matter how crummy a movie may be, they always seem to make a movie look good. It's their job to build hype and get people excited about seeing the actual film. They are definitely an editors medium: simply gather the best bits of a film, string them together, an presto! A mini movie!

I'm not saying that those who create trailers are hacks who can't get a real job in Hollywood. It's a credit to these artists that they often make a terrible movie look interesting (The Island), drawing us to the theater with false hopes ending in letdown. Sometimes a trailer will make a great film look really ordinary (L.A. Confidential), and while you don't exactly run to the theater, it's a nice surprise when you get there.

YouTube's blueyoda has taken an interesting approach to the movie trailer, creating a sixty second version of various movies. In essence this is a trailer, but I think it's a bit more. There is no slick music covering the entire piece, and no title cards linking scenes together. They are creative Reader's Digest versions of the full movie that often capture the essence of said film with humor, style and obvious love for the movies.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Tool Time: More Stuff for a Low Budget

Your Biggest Fan
A few posts back I wrote about creating an inexpensive movie explosion. With all bombs come smoke and what better to move that smoke around than an industrial-strength fan? A reader of Toolmonger says the Vornado Heavy-Duty fan is such an animal. It (supposedly) can move air some 80 feet, can be rotated, and has a lifetime warranty. It not super-cheap, but with all those features the $95 price tag would be worth it. Also good for blowing your actress' hair around for those sensual slow-motion shampoo commercials.

I don't know about you, but I have a crate of film junk that is always crying out to be organized. Another Toolmonger post points out DeWalt's "Tough Case" could be great at sorting all kinds of drill bits. I agree, but think that it would better utilized to sort the myriad of audio connectors that are accumulating in several areas of my house. This box is sturdy, has adjustable dividers, and opens like as briefcase, opposed to a toolbox (which can be good if you need to store the case itself). I'm not sure until I see one, but it also looks like a good way to store DV tapes. All this can be yours for 9 bucks at Home Depot.

"Poor Man's Jib"
Michael Hileman of Closet Films wanted a tripod-mounted jib for his filmmaking, but didn't want to spend a lot. He also didn't want to buy a heavy duty tripod to support the commercial jibs that were available. Not being able to afford the solution he wanted, he created his own device. What followed has to be the most detailed instructions I've ever seen in creating one of these gizmos. His completed version only cost $60, and was constructed completely out of parts bought at Lowe's hardware store (a price list is included). He even has a video clip to show what his creation is capable of. I just wish he'd turned off auto-exposure! Still, an educational read.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Hollywood Finally Going Digital--Is that Good News for Indies?

Engadget is reporting that a joint venture is underway to install a digital delivery system for movies in several theater chains covering 14,000 screens. It sounds like the technology will be hi-tech streaming, which differs from the current model which involves the delivery of films on large capacity hard drives instead of film reels. Anti-piracy methods are being put in place to thwart anyone who attempts to intercept the signal and use it for their own nefarious purposes. Good luck with that one.

I have long thought that once digital took over, anyone who could produce a high quality digital video would have a real chance on the silver screen. While this has happened in the past on current setups (The Blair Witch Project, Open Water), gone would be the costs of film prints and the crappy picture resulting from a video-to-film conversion. With HD gear coming down in price, you could get a good picture on a big screen for a low price. Just get a talented Cinematographer (don't forget a good script!) and you're money.

While indie theatrical runs are currently very possible now, the resultant eyeballs (usually around 20 venues) are still few in numbers. Just think what would happen if your film ended up on just 2,000 screens? Or 1,000? The exposure would be amazing and would catapult you to a new filmmaking level. Think of the numbers of people who would want to work on your next movie, based on exposure like that!

The trick, of course, is getting Hollywood to put you into their distro loop. This still involves pounding the pavement and getting someone's attention via some kind of marketing and/or pitching (festivals, the internet, etc.). While this is still a tough way to go, I think studio heads are going to be looking for more indie content that they can just plug into their model with comparatively little cost to them. Your movie still has to be good, but plan ahead and I think we all have a great chance when this new system is in place.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Technique: Stop-Motion Animation

Stop motion is the age-old method of creating movement from inanimate things. Before 3-D space was available in a computer, filmmakers took whatever they had laying around and exposed a frame of film of it, moved it slightly, and exposed it again. This continued as long as wanted and when the film was developed and projected, the object appear to move. 2-D Cel animation is also created this way, and has been for years.

Enterprising artists such as Willis O'Brien (King Kong) and Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts) went one step further by animating models they had constructed. Now any creature imaginable could be built in miniature around a flexible skeleton. The effect was other-worldly and may seem dated, but it is still fun.

Even at the birth of CGI, stop motion was still an option. Witness below Phil Tippet's test footage for the Raptor attack in the kitchen scene of Jurassic Park. It's incomplete (storyboards fill in the holes), but fascinating. I'm glad they went with the CGI, but I was glad to see this nonetheless.

Even though this technique has been almost completely replaced by computers, there is still a place for it. Tim Burton most recently used it in his delightful Corpse Bride. South Park creates a decidedly unique look with it's moving construction paper-esque look. And let's not forget Nick Park and Wallace & Gromit!

Recently, I discovered the work of the artist known only as PES, and his Kaboom! (don't miss the making of) is wonderfully creative and clever. My other favorites of his include the commercials for Sneaux (where he animates live actors), and Coinstar. Just don't say I didn't warn you about Roof Sex and Beasty Boy.

While the tools have changed a bit, making a stop motion setup is pretty easy. All you need is a digital still camera on a tripod, a computer and your subject(s). Lock down your camera and shoot one picture at a time. When you run out of memory, download automatically and continue. Finally, assemble all your shots into an animated movie. Like your predecessors, you are only limited by your imagination.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Online Video Contests: Update

It's the start of a new month, which is always a good time to inform you folks about web competitions for filmmakers. These are great to hone your skills and potentially reap some cool prizes. The only requirements for a listing here (all of which can be found in the sidebar), are no entry fee, and some kind of reward.

The Hold Steady's Music Video Contest
The rules here are simple: make a music video using any song from The Hold Steady's latest album, Boys and Girls in America. The Prizes: There are three prize packages that include $1000, $500, and $250 respectively. The Catch: The songs are not given to contestants (via download), so I guess you have to purchase the CD to find out what your material is. Video entries are posted as they come in. Deadline is March 31. Video Contest
Here's a contest with an interesting premise. These guys will send you a Vboxx T-shirt, and you must incorporate it into your video somehow! Before they send you a shirt, however, you must pitch your idea to them in the registration process, so be ready! The contest is monthly with a $5,000 prize each month. All the monthly winners are eligible for the grand prize of $50,000, and both contests are voted on by registered users. Shirts are limited, and videos will only be collected until June 30.

Urban Legend: Redux
Got horror? is sponsoring a contest that wants your warped take on any urban legend. Upload your video and if you make it past the first and second round, you could get an all paid weekend to L.A. as well as a walk-on in a future Lionsgate horror movie. No cash here, but for splatter hounds, the very idea may be motivation enough. Entries are accepted until April 24.

Make a Music Video for "Completely" by Art of Dying
Here's another band looking for a good video. This time, they give you the song to download (thank you), and offer some pretty impressive prizes: a Macbook and a Hi-def Canon HV1 (huh?) camera. Now comes the weirdness. According to the rules, the video must not be longer than one minute, but it can be shorter! Considering the song they give you is over three minutes, I'm not sure how you're supposed to do that, but with these prizes, why not try? No deadline is given beyond "After the 50th entrant is entered the voting period will continue for 60 days".

So there you go. Grab your cameras, fire up your NLE, and good luck!

Friday, March 2, 2007


A Tale of Two Spies

I like movies with small casts. It focuses the story and trims away waste that seems to creep in with larger canvases and more subplots. Last year’s The Good Shepherd was a spy film of this ilk. It was a large movie that had a lot to say, but seemed drowned by its bigness. Now we have a completely different type of espionage movie, Breach. While not perfect, there is enough done right in this more personal story to captivate the viewer and warrant a recommendation.

Up-and-coming FBI officer Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) is given a tough, new assignment. Under the direction of his handler Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), he is to partner with agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) and report all his activities. The respected Hanssen is under suspicion of selling secrets to the Russians, and Burroughs wants to catch him red-handed so they have enough legal leverage to make him talk. Hanssen is no pushover, however, and instantly suspects O’Neill of being a plant.

Let me just say that Chris Cooper (Syriana) is amazing in this film. His Hanssen is a complex, twisted guy, who feigns piety while making pornographic videos of himself and his wife. His character is not likeable in any sense of the word, but you do feel pity for this man who claims to be a patriot, yet turns on his government and his country. Cooper is mean and pathetic and suspicious and manipulative and just electric on the screen.

Linney (Man of the Year) is solid in her minor role, but Breach is most hurt by Phillippe (Flags of Our Fathers), who is his typically bland, distant self. His “range” consists of a blank, brooding stare and monotone line delivery. Fortunately, he doesn’t derail the movie, but a superior actor could have lifted this material to a better place.

Director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) does a good job at keeping the story moving, and gives us some good suspense set pieces (I liked the scene when Phillippe can’t remember which identical-looking pocket Cooper’s Palm Pilot goes into). There is also a nice theme running through the movie that all this obsession and stress ruins relationships and sterilizes personalities. When Phillipe asks the single Linney “Is it worth it?” She responds with “Ask me after we catch him.”

I also liked the supporting performances. Gary Cole (Talladega Nights) and Dennis Haysbert (TV’s 24) could play this FBI stuff in their sleep, but they are always fun to watch. Who really stands out is Caroline Dhavernas (Hollywoodland) who plays Phillippe’s wife, Juliana. She is very sympathetic and we feel for her, such as when she is tormented over dinner when Cooper shows up unannounced.

Breach isn’t great cinema, but it is compelling, and is capped by a wonderful Chris Cooper performance. That alone wouldn’t be enough to recommend this film, and it’s a combination of elements that make it worth seeing. Just don’t let Phillippe get to you, and you’ll be fine.


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